UK Football

UK football: Freshman Kemp used to root for Gators, now he looks to run through them

Kentucky freshman Jojo Kemp (3) has earned the co-No. 1 running back spot with senior Raymond Sanders. "His burst impresses," said his position coach Chad Scott.
Kentucky freshman Jojo Kemp (3) has earned the co-No. 1 running back spot with senior Raymond Sanders. "His burst impresses," said his position coach Chad Scott. Herald-Leader

Jojo Kemp says he used to spend his weekends at the swamp.

Not the sticky, itchy, alligator infested places that litter his home state of Florida.

No, the Kentucky freshman running back means he spent his weekends at The Swamp, the home of the Florida Gators, home of several of his former DeLand High School teammates, and home of the team he grew up rooting for.

"I always hung around them guys," said Kemp, the freshman who recently was bumped up the UK depth chart to the co-No. 1 running back with senior Raymond Sanders.

They were "kind of the guys that I looked up to growing up. They went to the same high school, so I always had tickets to go and I stayed down there a lot."

Florida never offered Kemp a scholarship, but he says he wasn't disappointed.

"Oh not at all," he said Wednesday, a few days before Kentucky plays host to No. 20 Florida at Commonwealth Stadium. "They were trying to get me to play safety, so I wasn't really feeling it."

Kemp knew in his heart he wanted to be a running back and getting a chance to show he's pretty good at that position will be added incentive for the 5-foot-10, 190-pounder, who is averaging 9.3 yards a carry, 15th best in the nation and third best among freshmen nationally, behind only Memphis' Marquis Warford (10.4) and Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott (9.5).

"I feel motivated every week," Kemp said. "I feel like I've got to prove something every time I step out on the field, show the coaches, the fans out there."

Kemp has convinced Kentucky coaches and teammates.

"He makes plays. It sounds simple, but he's made plays with the ball in his hands," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said of Kemp, who has led the team in rushing for two straight games. "The thing that he does is, he makes quick decisions. There's no second-guessing. He sticks his foot in the ground, he trusts his run read. He's a natural guy, natural ability. He makes plays. And he hits the hole fast."

Kemp's position coach, Chad Scott, the last UK freshmen to lead the team in rushing, said even when there doesn't appear to be much running room, the freshman from Florida finds some.

"His burst impresses," Scott said. "He's ready to make a play. Some of the runs so far in those three games, there hasn't always been a lot up front, but he just darts, sees a small hole and makes a big play out of it."

But will the player who ran for more than 2,600 yards and 37 touchdowns in his final two high school seasons put up big numbers against a Florida defense that leads the nation in stopping the run?

The Gators are holding opponents to just 55.3 yards on the ground. In fact, the UF defense has allowed a grand total of 166 yards and one touchdown in three games so far this season.

"Jojo's not worried about that," UK Coach Mark Stoops said. "He's ready to go play. We have a lot of respect for that defense and how hard they play, and Jojo's a Florida kid, like you know, so he'll be excited to go play."

The freshman running back, who was rated the No. 10 multipurpose back out of high school by Rivals, didn't contradict his coach. Having a big game (five carries for 80 yards) against Louisville two weeks ago helped.

"I really have confidence in myself," Kemp said. "I really believe in myself a lot, so when I do what I did against Louisville, I can do better."

That's the part that might make him a special running back for Kentucky, his teammates and coaches said. Even when he's playing well, he's looking at film trying to improve his pass blocking or his run technique.

"I've been helping him learn and I'm staying on him," said Sanders, the senior. "And he's still listening, asking me questions on the field. So nothing's changed. But he gets out there, he makes plays, so I can see why they want to give him the ball."

Smith practices well

Not only is Maxwell Smith back, but he might even be throwing better than before, the quarterback and his coaches said on Wednesday.

"I think the week down did him well," Brown said of Smith. "No signs, no signs of the injury to me. He was almost perfect in yesterday's practice."

Smith said he judges whether his velocity — the thing that he lost after the latest shoulder issue against Louisville — is OK based on his out routes. "All of them are pretty much on the money and felt good," Smith reported. "(Brown) said it might be the best he's seen me throw the ball, so that was a compliment."

Stoops said the limited pitch count he previously discussed about Smith was sort of a moot point because of the rotation between him and Jalen Whitlow at quarterback.


No. 20 Florida at Kentucky | When: 7 p.m. Saturday | Records: Florida 2-1 (1-0 SEC), Kentucky 1-2 (0-0) | TV: ESPNU

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